Literature Annotations


Butler, Samuel
Erewhon


On-Line Text
Genre Novel
KeywordsAIDS, Alcoholism, Disease and Health, Grief, History of Medicine, Infectious Disease, Institutionalization, Love, Medical Ethics, Science Fiction, Society
Summary

Higgs, a sheep farmer, and Chowbok, an old man, decide one day to visit the forbidden country that lies beyond the mountains. When they find a pass through the mountains, Chowbok gets frightened and runs home, so Higgs goes on alone. After a dangerous journey, he wakes one morning surrounded by beautiful shepherdesses. They take his belongings, give him a medical exam, and throw him in jail.

There he learns that he has come to Erewhon (an anagram for nowhere). In this country, illness is considered a crime. Sick people are thrown in jail; sickness is their own fault. Even sad people are imprisoned, for grief is a sign of misfortune and people are held responsible for actions that made them unfortunate. People who rob or murder, on the other hand, are treated kindly and taken to the hospital to recover. No machines are allowed in Erewhon as one philosopher thought that machines could rapidly evolve and take over the world.

Higgs is invited to dinner with Nosibor, a recovering embezzler. He stays with his family and falls in love with his youngest daughter Arowhena. Nosibor insists that the eldest daughter marry first, so Higgs goes to study at the University of Unreason, where students study anything that has absolutely no practical purpose. Arowhena and Higgs meet there secretly and when Nosibor finds out, he is very angry. Higgs and Arowhena fly away on a balloon. They land in the sea and are taken to England where they marry and plan a missionary trip to Erewhon.

Commentary

Butler is critical of what he sees as the contradictory logic of the late nineteenth century. Knowledge has become too impractical. Erewhon’s odd attitude toward illness may be a commentary on the late Victorians’ attitudes toward illness. With the passage of the Contagious Disease Act and other laws, individuals could be given involuntary medical exams and removed from their homes to be kept under surveillance by the police, or by philanthropic societies. Prostitutes suffered most from such legislation which was largely a reaction to an increase in syphilis.

Such attitudes still exist. Smokers, alcoholics, people with AIDS, or even women with breast cancer are sometimes treated as criminals. If they had behaved properly, they wouldn’t have such medical problems. Are the Erewhons wrong, then, for holding such views?

PublisherViking Penguin
Edition1970
EditorsPeter Mudford
Place PublishedNew York
MiscellaneousFirst published: 1872
Annotated by Moore, Pamela and Coulehan, Jack
Date of Entry 08/08/94
Last Revised 08/17/06